I want to briefly explain what the mindset of a young American is like when she’s living in eastern Congo without the comfort of an international NGO’s team of security analysts. A story:
Around the end of June, Lora and Christian decided to take a boat up Lake Kivu to Goma for the weekend. I, having not had a house to myself in five months, was delighted at the prospect of my solitary weekend and happily wished them safe travels.
That first evening alone, I was walking home from the BYAC office, groceries in hand, thinking of all the reading I would get done that night. But as I cut through a gas station parking lot toward the house, all thoughts of the upcoming relaxation disappeared. I was staring at a giant black pick-up filling its tank with the biggest machine gun I have ever seen in my life (this qualification includes museums and documentaries but excludes fictional superhero and apocalyptic blockbusters) resting in the bed. It looked to be (and it probably was) an artifact of the Cold War.
The most unsettling part of this scene, however, was not the gun. It was the soldiers surrounding it, because I had never before seen their uniforms. Instead of green camouflage army fatigues, these men were wearing what my middle-American mind classified as khaki deer hunting camo plus burgundy berets. As quickly as my mind had emptied of the anticipation of rest, it refilled with worry. I kept calmly walking, but tried to take in every detail of the truck and its passengers as I went. In that moment, my illusion of peaceful stability in Bukavu was in pieces, because here’s what I had to assume: these new uniforms might be a different faction of the army, yes. But they might also be one of a number of militia groups that roam the South Kivu province, many not so far from Bukavu. My walk home consisted of a pounding in my chest and a torrent of possible scenarios dominating my thoughts. What of it’s Bosco Ntaganda’s rebels? What do I do if rebels invade? Do I hide out in the house and wait for Lora and Christian or do I go it alone to the border? Actual self-evacuation plans. That was suddenly my life.
And this wasn’t all new. The uniforms were a trigger, but I was realizing exactly how much subconscious worry I was building up simply by existing in this place. Lora’s told me of similar revelations- the many days that pass, unassuming and without incident, and then one little thing happens to shake the balance and you’re suddenly drowning in all the concern and uncertainty that’s been silently gaining momentum. This place could easily make you go grey early.
The good news is that when Christian and Lora got home, they were able to say with confidence that those uniforms were part of another branch of the Congolese National Army, one I just hadn’t seen before. I returned to feeling safe, but it couldn’t be quite the same. Since that weekend of always having an escape route in mind, of organizing my pack so that I could flee with my belongings at the drop of a hat, I can’t help but be aware of the fact that I don’t actually feel as secure as I might think I feel.
The point is not that I was actually in danger that day. I wasn’t. The point is that I had to assume that I was in danger- an entirely new feeling for someone who’s lived in a cushy “Mitten State” for ¾ of her life. This is one of several reasons that nine weeks in eastern Congo feels like nine months in eastern Congo. I really am safe, I promise. But I’m also checking the news almost daily and I ask questions about security of everyone I know because the reality of this region demands that I do so.
I can’t help but wonder if this constant stress and early aging is something like the feeling of being president. I can only hope that if I prove myself able to stomach it, I’ll have a shot at the 2016 bid*. Oh! to dream.
*At no point in my 22 years have I ever actually wanted to be president.